Summer 1970

gilespicsummersymbolThis Chinese character, (commonly used in written Korean), means Summer.

Giles Ryan
© Copyright 2024 by Giles Ryan

Photo by Lucia Barreiros Silva:
Photo by Lucia Barreiros Silva at Pexels.

The high summer days in Korea were a test. The weather was hot and humid, almost tropical, worse than the midsummer days of my childhood in Virginia. All through July and August everyone talked of the heat and how to mitigate the misery. 

Some of these notions were in the realm of folk remedies. The very kind gentleman who taught me Chinese calligraphy, (his encouragement far exceeded my meager skill), assured me of the efficacy of the ancient adage “I-yŏl Chi-yŏl” which taught that one should counter one kind of heat with another, and so one should take hot liquids to cool off. I learned to write this in Chinese, tried following the advice by slurping hot herbal teas and steaming hot noodle soups but found no relief in the practice. Other friends insisted that boshin-tang, a very spicy dog-meat stew, was the answer, but I drew the line at this for reasons which some could not quite understand.  

Some friends insisted that the best relief from the summer heat was readily available on any mountaintop, and there were so many to choose from. Just hike up to a sufficient elevation and the cool breeze would take away all your cares and soothe the weary spirit. I’m sure they were right and some years later I came to appreciate this view, but in those early years in Chunchŏn I still thought of mountain climbing as the sort of strenuous activity better suited to a cooler day. 

Fortunately I had a like-minded colleague, Hwang-sŏnsaeng, who suggested a day-trip to one of the lakes northeast of Chunchŏn and a less strenuous walk along a river bank where one could enjoy a view of the mountains without the rigors of climbing them. He was in his late twenties, had been teaching for a few years and was still enjoying the freedom of bachelorhood, which gave him time to take me for an outing, and he promised something special. He insisted that whatever my feelings about dogs, boshin-tang was very over-rated  – and really vulgar, he personally disliked it – and he would show me something far better for coping with the heat and much more suited to a refined taste. 

One very warm Sunday in August we took a small bus out of town and along the dusty road that followed the Soyang River in the direction of the great dam to the north. We got off near the lake beyond the dam and began a leisurely walk which, I was assured, was no more than a few kilometers along the edge of the lake. The day was clear and quite hot now but the scenery was delightful, with the lake to one side and the mountains to the other and narrow valleys with ascending terraces of rice paddies leading up the steep slopes, a view which included occasional farm houses and the prominent grave mounds that were commonplace on Korean hillsides. I knew that the sites for these burial mounds were carefully chosen to give the dead a pleasant view and thus lend repose to the spirit. The graves were always well-tended by family members who typically used such visits to perform the chesa ceremony, a ritual offering of food and drink to the dead, which was usually followed by a picnic.

And, as it happened, on this day we encountered a funeral procession. A large gathering of family and friends were following the funeral bier which held the coffin shrouded in white cloth, and many of the family wore sangbok, the traditional white hempen mourning clothes. While the men in the procession were stern and stoic in their demeanor, the women were wailing in a shocking demonstration of unrestrained grief. Some of this loud display of bereavement may have been genuine but it was also considered a requisite expression of regret for the impiety of having survived the male family elder. At the front of the line a man carried a large black-bordered photo of the deceased, who was quite old by this portrait and very likely the family patriarch. There were over a hundred people in the crowd and they moved slowly along with a mournful pace.  Several women at the end of the procession carried heavy bundles, presumably with the small tables, funerary vessels and food and drink for the changnyeshik, the elaborate obsequies conducted at the burial mound.  

We had moved to the side of the path and stood quietly as they passed. When they had gone by and we resumed our walk, Hwang-sŏnsaeng, said with a brighter mood, “It’s a lucky day.”

I was shocked.  “What do you mean?” I asked. 

I could see that he was surprised by my reaction and he answered, “It’s good luck to see a funeral. Is it not the same in America?”

There followed a discussion about funeral customs, the formal rituals of Confucianism, the whole concept of fate and its pedestrian cousin, luck, and how people in different cultures could have very different ideas about luck and why this would be so. 

But really,” I asked, “how is it good luck to see someone’s funeral?”  

Hwang-sŏnsaeng paused for a moment, apparently thinking about a question which may have seemed odd but which also deserved an answer, and finally he said, “Well, he’s dead, and we are alive” 

The words seemed flippant but I did not laugh because I could see by his expression that he was not being facetious. So we walked in silence for a moment and I reflected that I had known Hwang-sŏnsaeng for several months and already knew some of his background  – that he had attended middle school and high school in Chunchŏn, had served his Army duty on the DMZ, had graduated from Koryŏ University in Seoul, and was an only child living with his widowed mother – but I also recalled that his family was originally from Pyŏngyang in the North and that like so many people in Chunchŏn he had probably been a refugee. For the first time I considered his age and realized that when the war ended he was probably about twelve years old and he very likely had vivid memories of terrible events.

Most people didn’t talk about the war but I felt I knew him well enough to ask, “How did you come to settle in Chunchŏn?”

He could tell that my question arose from what we were discussing a moment before. He smiled and said, “My mother and I became separated from my father and older brother during the war. When the war ended my mother decided we must live in Chunchŏn, near the border. She thought we might be reunited but it never happened. So we just stayed.” And then his tone brightened.  “But I’m so glad we did. You may think it’s warm here but down south the summer is much hotter. Taegu is terrible!”

It was a delicate but deliberate change of subject.  I had been in Korea long enough to know that people’s personal experiences during the war were too painful to dwell on.  

Yes, I’m sure you’re right. And since you’ve mentioned the heat, and we’ve been walking for some time now, what is the special place we’re going to?”

He assured me that we were almost there and not much later we arrived at a small thatched-roof house by the lake, hardly more than a shanty, with a rickety deck-like structure extending from the house and out over the water. An old man came out and greeted us as customers, although there was no sign to indicate any kind of business. He invited us to sit out over the water and enjoy the cool air.  Hwang-sŏnsaeng spoke to him briefly. I understood he was asking for soju, the clear, quite strong drink enjoyed by many men, and something else I didn’t understand.

What are we having?” 

Eels,” he answered. “It’s good for you in hot weather.”  

Really?  I didn’t quite hear the word.”

We say chang-ŏ.”

For some months I had been studying Chinese characters, partly as a way of understanding the roots and underlying meaning of the Korean words and also for the characters’ intrinsic beauty. My mind quickly drew the association between the English word eel, the shape of the eel itself and the Korean word chang-ŏ, and in my mind I saw the Chinese characters and I said, “So chang-ŏ means “long fish?”

He looked puzzled, thought for a moment, then laughed and said, “Yes, of course, it means long fish.” 

The relationship between Korean and Chinese was analogous to that of English to Greek and Latin. And, just as we never think of the Greek or Latin roots when we say words like democracy or public, Koreans used Chinese-derived vocabulary without ever thinking of the original Chinese, even though the association is so much more direct when the Chinese characters are used together with the Korean phonemic alphabet in newspapers and other texts. At school the teachers had grown used to my questions about the Chinese etymology for Korean vocabulary and some of them now found a new interest in something they had never thought about, had always taken for granted. 

But in this brief moment our host had pulled from the water a wire cage with a writhing assortment of eels for our inspection and we were invited to make our choice. I left this to Hwang-sŏnsaeng and he picked two lively fellows which our host held up for our closer inspection, then dropped in a bucket. In a few moments he had brought a small table and a brazier with very hot coals. Using a cutting board he took each eel in turn, nailed its head to the board, then made a circular incision behind the head and deftly pulled away the skin, not unlike pulling off a sock. All the while the eels were still alive and clearly not pleased with this ill use. In Korea the concept of freshness took on new meaning.

Soon we were enjoying grilled eel dipped in a sauce of red pepper and sesame seed oil and were taking turns pouring each other small glasses of soju. All this took place sitting over the lake water with a fine breeze blowing down from the hillside and the afternoon sun making its slow way to the western peaks, and soon all the torment of the recent hot days was forgotten. 

The pace of our meal was leisurely and we spoke of whatever came to mind – events at school, plans for the brief summer holiday, his mother’s suggestion that he marry in the next year or so – she would find someone suitable – and his wish to postpone this for awhile and save up more money for the necessary expense. 

It was a dinner I would always remember and hoped to repeat, and I thanked him and truly meant it when I promised that if the future ever brought him to Virginia, I would show him as fine an experience with the oysters and crabs of the Chesapeake Bay.

Later when we had finished this wonderful meal in this memorable place and had said goodbye to the old man, we walked the same distance back to catch the little bus.  Along the way I thought to ask, “But what’s the connection between eating grilled eel and the hot weather?  Of course it’s delicious but can anyone really say they feel cooler?”

Well…,” and then Hwang-sŏnsaeng hesitated, seemed to search for the right words, and finally said, “it doesn’t really make you cooler, but some people say that eating eel is good for a man’s vigor, that it restores a man’s strength during the hot weather.” The subject seemed to embarrass him.

Why would he be embarrassed? But then I considered his bachelor state, the conventional decorum – even primness – prevalent in this very Confucian culture, and I recollected the long smooth shape of the eel and its apparent strength and energy before it lost its skin and landed on the grill, and I guessed at the association. 

So do I understand correctly that eating eel in hot weather is only effective for men? Would women eat eels for the same reason?”

He laughed and said, “Certainly not! Oh no, that would never happen.” And as we walked along he chuckled again from time to time and I knew this story would be retold, that I had created another anecdote to share in the teachers room.

Soon we were riding the little bus back to town, refreshed in every sense, and on the way I reflected on the richness of living with such kind and generous people and learning new and even startling things every day in a country so very different from my own. 

May 5, 2010

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